Smaller shows fill gap after Ringling pulled up stakes
Reports of the death of the circus are proving exaggerated. There were plenty of obituaries when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, the leading name in classic clowns-acrobatsand-lions circus, shut down in May after 146 years of operation, harassed by animal rights groups and unable to compete in an era saturated with easily accessible electronic entertainment. But experts say the circus business is not dying but evolving. “We’re in a kind of circus renaissance in America,” said Janet Davis, professor of American studies and history at the University of Texas at Austin who has written books on the circus industry. Spectacular shows like Ringling Bros. are giving way to smaller, one-ring performances, she said.
Evidence of that renaissance is coming to Washington, D.C. Next week, the Smithsonian Institution will highlight roughly 20 of these smaller circus performance groups — both professional and educational — at its 50th Folklife Festival, an outdoor exhibition that features a different occupational community and traditions every year.
“People are more interested in getting closer [to the performance],” said James Deutsch, co-curator of the circus arts program at the Smithsonian. “They want something that is more up close and personal, and that is exactly what the Folklife Festival is able to provide.”
One of the featured circus groups, the UniverSoul Circus, also opened a five-week run at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, on Thursday.
With a troupe of 70 performers and traditions like the “Soul Train Line” and a kids dance contest in its one-ring show, UniverSoul is smaller than shows like Ringling, but it’s doing well: Its shows, performed to crowds of 2,200, often sell out, said UniverSoul spokesman Hank Ernest.
“People always want to feel at home and feel like a family,” said Lucky Malatsi, UniverSoul’s ringmaster. “As long as we stay relevant and translate that in a joyful manner but also have a message, we will be just fine.”
Founded by CEO Cedric Walker in 1994 as a circus to bring more African-Americans into the industry, UniverSoul now performs in more than 30 cities across the U.S., with performers from 11 countries. Mr. Malatsi himself is from South Africa, scouted as a 9-year-old street performer 17 years ago by Mr. Walker.
Mr. Malatsi claims that UniverSoul’s diversity contributes to its success. UniverSoul is also unique, he said, because it changes its show every year, drawing crowds who want to see something different from performers they like. This year’s 14-act show sports the new and the traditional, featuring clowns and aerialists along with motocross and Caribbean limbo dancers.
UniverSoul may not look like Ringling Bros., but that’s OK, said Ms. Davis. Ringling emphasized the spectacular — pyrotechnics and “technological wizardry” — but not so much the individual performer. Newer, smaller shows are focusing on centuries-old acrobatic arts and the ability of a performer to defy physics — which is what truly defines a circus, she said.
Definition is at the heart of the problem: People think of Ringling when they hear “circus,” but that’s not the way a circus has to be, said Adam Woolley, managing director of Circus Now, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting the circus industry and education.
“The truth is that Ringling has been just a part of the picture of the circus industry in America since the ’80s,” said Mr. Woolley, noting that a circus can be a one-ring acrobatic show or a grand theatrical performance by Cirque du Soleil, the giant Canadian entertainment company.
Shana Kennedy, executive director of the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts, said one of the greatest signs of the industry’s persistence is the soaring number of circus arts schools, with at least 200 around the country.
But the industry still faces challenges. The main problem in the U.S. is lack of awareness, Ms. Kennedy said. While European and Canadian companies receive government grants, U.S. circus schools are largely still unrecognized and don’t have diploma programs.
Circuses also need to reach out more to the public, said Paul Archer, secretary of the Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain. People are too busy to take time for a circus unless they know well in advance that it’s coming and that it will give them what they want, he said.
Ultimately, Ringling’s closure is no cause for concern for the industry, said Mr. Archer.
“The circus can survive, and it will survive,” he said. “As long as new generations come in, there will be circuses.”
Despite Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey ending its 146-year run, smaller circus tours are now filling in the void left by the show’s end, including UniverSoul Circus, which raised the curtain on a five-week run at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, Thursday.
The Smithsonian will highlight 20 smaller circus groups as part of its 50th Folklife Festival, an outdoor exhibition that each year highlights a different profession. The event begins June 29.